Their responsibilities: safety, information and sign-posting for the benefit of skiers and rescue.
Châtel has 40 of them. They consist of patrolmen-blasters, dog-handlers, snow and weather forecasters, mountain rescue patrolmen, and many have completed their initial training by specialising and further increasing their expertise.
Some people like to call them the Saint Bernards of the ski slopes, but, joking apart, they play an extremely important role ensuring that skiing is an unspoilt pleasure.
The range of their missions makes them more than essential!
The Portes du Soleil patrolmen wear yellow and green, one way of recognising them when you need help or advice.
Ensuring safety on the ski slopes means eliminating all risk of avalanche.
The Patrolmen, Safety Officers and Avalanche Controllers use explosives to provoke controlled avalanches after each snowfall.
They have several ways of starting controlled avalanches:
Bundles of explosive delivered by hand
The principle is to throw a carefully calculated explosive charge onto the snow cover concerned.
The shock wave removes the layer of snow causing a controlled snow slide or avalanche that varies in size as the amount of snow removed.
This mechanisms are set up at specific firing points and enable the patrolmen-blasters to provoke avalanches by remote control using computers and radiocommunications for setting off the explosion.
The principle: a mixture of oxygen and propane is injected into a metal tube placed in a particular direction on the snow. It is ignited at will by a spark. The equipment enables patrolmen-blasters to set off controlled avalanches whatever the weather while making sure that no-one is at risk.
What is a CATEX?
A CATEX works in much the same way as a ski lift.
Set up beforehand on the ski slopes, the cable explosives transporter takes explosive charges to chosen target points suspended at the end of a pole. Covering inaccessible and/or dangerous areas, controlled avalanches can be provoked without risk for the patrolmen, and are more effective in that the explosion takes place above the layer of snow, optimising its effect on the snow.
Cost of installation as a whole: one million French Francs for a six kilometre (3 1/2 mile) cableway.
Used to deal with inaccessible and/or dangerous areas, helicopters can be used to place explosive charges quickly and precisely where needed. The only problem is the weather which on occasion blocks flying in the area.
The cost of the flights and the skills required for manoeuvring in the mountains has led to ground based equipment such as CATEX and GAZEX being installed where possible.
At night, when all the world's asleep, the snow-compacters are at work preparing the slopes for the next day.
Every day fourteen of the most modern machines criss-cross the Châtel ski slopes restoring and maintaining their quality.
These specially tracked machines, are capable of climbing the steep slopes in the area. They are powered by 12,000 cm3 engines developing 360 CV (French HP). On the even steeper slopes, winched machines are used, attached to a 700 m cable thus overcoming the problems ordinary tracked vehicles would otherwise experience.
Attached to firmly-installed anchors at selected points on all the ski slopes, the introduction of these machines has revolutionised ski slope maintenance and quality.
The drivers have become veritable "pilots", and thanks to them the ski slopes are now wide boulevards providing maximum thrills for all.
What is a snow-gun?
This machine, is designed to make cultivated snow. It is fully automatic, coming into action whenever the temperature falls to - 4°C.
To make snow, our snow-guns are fitted with an air compressor, a fan, a water supply, and automatic controls taking all the various parameters into account in addition to the volume of snow required. 1 m3 of water makes 2 m3 of snow under optimum operating conditions.
The colder the water and air, the lower the humidity of the air (hygrometry), the more snow is made. In all, we use completely natural elements! This is why we prefer to talk of cultivated rather than artificial snow. .
How do we make snow?
Cultivated snow is just water and air, that’s all!
It’s issued form a totally mechanic method consisting in sending crushed water in a snow gun network distributed on the ski area. No chemical is used during the production cycle, only water and cold air. Of course this method is valid only if negative temperatures.
And in Châtel?
Châtel's geographical situation, to the far north of the French Alps, combined with the influence of nearby Lake Geneva, gives the resort its own microclimate usually ensuring that the snow does not melt. However, to counter Nature's whims, the Ski-Slope Department employs seven “snowmakers” making cultivated snow. Equipment: 300 snowmaking points spread all over the domain but concentrating on the most susceptible areas, that is to say 26km of slopes or 75 hectares covered.